WASHINGTON — Fifteen local boards of UNITE HERE, representing about 150,000 union members, voted on Saturday to break with the international parent union.

This story first appeared in the March 9, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The move to disaffiliate occurred as leaders of the two predecessor unions that joined to form UNITE HERE in 2004 — the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International — struggle for control over the union’s future.

“This vote was an important step that takes our union in the right direction,” said Edgar Romney, manager of the New York area metropolitan joint board and executive vice president of UNITE HERE. “Our joint board’s elected leaders voted to end our affiliation with UNITE HERE. In so doing, we can move ahead toward forming a new union that better serves its members and empowers those who do not yet have a union.”

A spokeswoman for John Wilhelm, president of UNITE HERE’s hospitality division and the former leader of HERE, did not return calls for comment.

Bruce Raynor, general president of UNITE HERE and former leader of UNITE, could not be reached for comment by press time.

The struggle between UNITE and HERE leaders over the direction of the union has been brewing for several months. Raynor lead a 25-member group that voted in January to dissolve the merger. A majority of general executive board members, including Wilhelm, opposed the split and voted to stay unified. The disaffiliation votes are the latest salvo in the dust-up. Four lawsuits have been filed recently by UNITE and HERE in Manhattan and New Jersey courts to stop the disaffiliation vote.

UNITE HERE’s general executive board will meet on March 13, said supporters of Wilhelm’s drive to keep the union unified. The joint boards’ next step could not be learned by press time.

Romney last week said the disaffiliation votes could eventually extend to 19 joint boards. UNITE HERE represents 400,000 workers in the apparel, textile, hotel and restaurant industries. “Our members deserve a union that’s better than the one they have been in for the past five years,” he said. “We have a moment right now to move in a new direction.”

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